Beethoven’s DNA sequencing reveals information about his life and health

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Researchers from around the world have analyzed the DNA of legendary composer Ludwig van Beethoven of legendary composer Ludwig van Beethoven using strands of his hair preserved by his followers. The study, recently published in the journal Current Biology did not provide a definitive explanation for the musician’s deafness, but it did identify genetic risk factors for liver disease and signs of hepatitis B infection, which may have contributed to his cirrhosis.

The Stumpff tuft arrived accompanied by an inscription from its former owner Patrick Stirling. (Kevin Brown)

Because of Beethoven’s popularity at the time, scientists were able to access several sources of potential DNA through locks of hair that friends and admirers had kept as mementos. To verify that the hair came from the composer, researchers extracted and analyzed DNA from eight locks under clean room conditions. Five of the samples matched a male individual with more than 99% European ancestry, suggesting that they were from Beethoven.

The team also had Beethoven’s own consent to study his hearing loss, expressed in letters written to his siblings. Although the DNA in the strands was degraded, the researchers were able to reconstruct approximately two-thirds of Beethoven’s genome. No purely inherited causes of disease were found in DNA, so polygenic risk scores were used to assess diseases that may have genetic and environmental components.

The Hiller lock, which according to the study does not come from Beethoven, is found with an inscription from its former owner Paul Hiller. (Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies/San Jose State University)

Jeremy Yudkin, musicologist and co-director of the Beethoven Research Center at Boston University, commented that the study is interesting and highlighted that there is evidence that Beethoven’s physical health influenced his music. However, he pointed out that there are deeper ways of understanding the composer that go beyond his genetic code and his health problems, such as the hundreds of profound and transcendental musical works he left behind.

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